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Flush Times and Fever Dreams

A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson

Joshua D. Rothman

Publication Year: 2012

In 1834 Virgil Stewart rode from western Tennessee to a territory known as the “Arkansas morass” in pursuit of John Murrell, a thief accused of stealing two slaves. Stewart’s adventure led to a sensational trial and a wildly popular published account that would ultimately help trigger widespread violence during the summer of 1835, when five men accused of being professional gamblers were hanged in Vicksburg, nearly a score of others implicated with a gang of supposed slave thieves were executed in plantation districts, and even those who tried to stop the bloodshed found themselves targeted as dangerous and subversive. Using Stewart’s story as his point of entry, Joshua D. Rothman details why these events, which engulfed much of central and western Mississippi, came to pass. He also explains how the events revealed the fears, insecurities, and anxieties underpinning the cotton boom that made Mississippi the most seductive and exciting frontier in the Age of Jackson.

As investors, settlers, slaves, brigands, and fortune-hunters converged in what was then America’s Southwest, they created a tumultuous landscape that promised boundless opportunity and spectacular wealth. Predicated on ruthless competition, unsustainable debt, brutal exploitation, and speculative financial practices that looked a lot like gambling, this landscape also produced such profound disillusionment and conflict that it contained the seeds of its own potential destruction. Rothman sheds light on the intertwining of slavery and capitalism in the period leading up to the Panic of 1837, highlighting the deeply American impulses underpinning the evolution of the slave South and the dizzying yet unstable frenzy wrought by economic flush times. It is a story with lessons for our own day.

Published in association with the Library Company of Philadelphia’s Program in African American History. A Sarah Mills Hodge Fund Publication.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

Series: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. xiii-xx

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PROLOGUE. The Cotton Frontier, United States of America

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pp. 1-14

As he rode from the Choctaw Cession in northern Mississippi toward the plantation districts of western Tennessee, Virgil Stewart likely pondered his future and its possibilities. Possessed of a discontented soul and a firm sense that he was fated for greatness...

Part One. Self-Made Men and Confidence Men

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CHAPTER ONE. Inventing Virgil Stewart

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pp. 17-50

Virgil Stewart came from a long line of restless men. Their migrations, extended over several generations, typified those of many families of Scottish and Scots- Irish ancestry...

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CHAPTER TWO. Inventing John Murrell

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pp. 51-88

The overflow crowd of spectators gathered in and around the twostory brick courthouse in Jackson, Tennessee, on July 24, 1834, had come to see Virgil Stewart as much...

Part Two. Settlers and Insurrectionists

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CHAPTER THREE. Exposing the Plot

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pp. 91-117

At first, what was happening near Beattie’s Bluff , Mississippi, did not seem to have anything to do with John Murrell, Virgil Stewart, or his pamphlet. Rumors passed of strange goings on, but no one could determine their source...

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CHAPTER FOUR. Hanging the Conspirators

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pp. 118-154

For men who knew they might be suspected of helping plot the largest slave insurrection the United States had ever seen, Joshua Cotton and William Saunders were surprisingly easy to find. When Cotton had been summoned...

Part Three. Speculators and Gamblers

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CHAPTER FIVE. Purging a City

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pp. 157-180

The Fourth of July began peacefully enough in Vicksburg. White residents of the city, located on the Mississippi River around fifty miles southwest of Livingston, had received word the previous day about the insurrection fears convulsing...

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CHAPTER SIX. Defining a Citizen

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pp. 181-206

Even as it grew commercially successful and became integrated into the national and international economies, Vicksburg remained a rootless and unformed place. Plenty of people were drawn to Vicksburg, but few were inclined...

Part Four. Slave Holders and Slave Stealers

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CHAPTER SEVEN. Suborning Chaos

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pp. 209-242

On the afternoon of July 7, 1835, after witnessing what he considered the farce of Angus Donovan’s trial, Henry Foote mounted his horse and started back toward his home in Clinton. He had gotten only about a mile south of Livingston...

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CHAPTER EIGHT. Imposing Order

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pp. 243-270

On July 13, after receiving the second letter in as many days from William Jones on behalf of the Clinton committee of safety imploring him to call out the state militia...

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EPILOGUE. Memory and Meaning

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pp. 271-302

Though panic had waned substantially by the end of July 1835, fears reverberated for months that John Murrell’s mystic clan still lurked in the slave states. In August, Alabamians in and around Huntsville created committees to watch for signs...

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pp. 303-306

When I first stumbled across the events at the heart of this book, I never imagined I would still be thinking about them nearly ten years later, and although I have tried to be diligent in keeping account of the very many people to whom I owe my gratitude...


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pp. 307-382


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pp. 383-394

E-ISBN-13: 9780820344669
E-ISBN-10: 0820344664
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820333267
Print-ISBN-10: 0820333263

Page Count: 440
Illustrations: 14 b&w photos, 6 maps
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900
Series Editor Byline: Richard S. Newman, Patrick Rael, and Manisha Sinha, Series Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 820011226
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Flush Times and Fever Dreams

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slavery -- Southern States -- History.
  • Theft -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Criminals -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Vigilance committee -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slave insurrections -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1775-1865.
  • Southern States -- Economic conditions -- 19th century
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